Monday, March 05, 2007


Someone is gonna be red in the face...

“The Cherokee people exercised the most basic democratic right, the right to vote,” said Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

How are you going to argue with an Indian Chief named Chad Smith? Besides, what better weekend to exercise this right than the first weekend in March?
When marchers gathered at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, to demand voting rights, the nation was forced to acknowledge the depth and breadth of racial discrimination and bigotry that existed in the United States.

Sounds like a success story to me. I mean, an historically disenfranchised nation that has suffered discrimination and hardship on a truly epic scale should be proud they have overcome the odds. Free at last, free at last, free to embrace their heritage by exercising their rights to determine their destiny.

Before you start doing a victory dance, you might want some background information about the Constitutional Amendment they are voting on....

The Cherokee voted on a Constitutional Amendment to restrict membership in the Cherokee Nation only to those listed as "Indians" on the Dawes Roll. That means a lot of folks who thought they were Cherokee are going to get pink slips at the next pow wow.

Don't feel bad if the Dawes Roll doesn't ring any bells. You probably slept through this part of American History. Actually, they probably skipped this part of it.

The Dawes Roll is: "an index to over 14,000 records of individuals in the Five Civilized Tribes that applied for citizenship under the Act of 1896. The Five Civilized Tribes include the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chicasaw, Creek and the Seminole... This compilation, in effect an Indian census, was also used as the basis for the allotment of tribal lands to individual Indians."

So far so good right? I mean if your great-grandpappy was an Injun according to the official census than dadgummit you deserve the right to reclaim your heritage.... sure as shootin'...

For those of you speed reading through this ... let me redirect your attention to a term of art, that Five Civilized Tribes reference. Seems a little odd to use that term when you are referring to tribes that got their butts kicked across the Appalachian Mountains and put on a forced march to Oklahoma under military "escort" in the dead of winter. Is that any way to treat "civilized" people?

Turns out these tribes, in spite of their abuse at the hands of White settlers intent on stealing their land and gold actually embraced several of the institutions and cultural norms of the settlers. For example, many of them were baptized as Christians. Another institution and value they adopted is particularly relevant for this recent vote. It turns out the "Civilized Tribes" also subscribed to the "peculiar institution" of slavery.

A lot of the folks who trudged West were slaves. Although thousands of Indians died on the Trail of Tears, there is no record of how many of their slaves died along the way. At the time it would not have made sense to record the loss of property... it wasn't like anyone was going to be filing insurance claims when they got to Oklahoma. Of course some of the slaves survived. After the Civil War they became "freedmen."

As we all know, the end of slavery didn't mean the end of segregation. It sure as heck didn't mean the former slaves and their offspring could hop a train back East and resettle in the lush land of Georgia, Tennessee or Florida. Never mind that under the Treaty of 1866 the "Civilized Tribes" were given the option of adopting their former slaves as citizens of the Nation. If they did not, The United States agreed to remove the blacks from Indian Country. Some tribes failed to adopt the freedmen, which prompted the United States ... to ignore that part of the treaty agreement. Gee... what a surprise.

This brings us back to the Dawes Commission formed in 1893... out of Washington. You really have to be naive if you think these folks came out West to do the Indians any favors. After all, these tribes sided with the Confederacy! Nope, the Dawes Commission was basically a ploy aimed at destroying the tribes by offering them plots of land as individuals. There was a lot of strife around who was and who was not defined as an Indian. Take the Chickasaw for example. In 1898, according to the Dawes Roll, there were about 4200 Chickasaw... and 4500 Chickasaw Freedmen! Suffice to say, there was a reason the Chickasaw didn't adopt their former slaves into the tribe. That would be like asking Israelis to adopt Palestinians and give them citizenship. Ain't gonna happen.

As long as folks are deciding who to dole out 40 acres to that kind of distinction makes sense. The Freedmen did fight for their rights, seeking redress through the legal system. But ... well suffice to say there's a reason you didn't study this in American History... ain't a whole lot of history to tell. In 1898 Congress passed the Curtis Act which abolished the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole legal systems putting everything under the direct control of the United States. Basically, everyone Indian and Freedman alike, got screwed.

Time passes... actually a LOT of time passes... little over a hundred years worth of time....

Folks stuck on the reservation don't have a whole hell of a lot of options. The Indians and the Freedmen shared a common culture, a common language, and for better or worse, a common heritage. So you get a fair amount of intermarriage, blood lines comingle... children are born...they have kids of their own ... and after a century or so it gets kind of hard to decide in some cases who exactly is a Cherokee, or a Cherokee Freedman, or both. Full-blooded Cherokee are pretty rare. But a lot of folks have Cherokee ancestors. Even more have Cherokee Freedmen ancestors. And this brings us right up to the present.

Just like the 1890s, the distinction has to do with land rights and financial benefits. To be fair, the Cherokee are not the first tribe to cast out the freedmen's descendents. The Seminole did this back in 2000, but with the Presidential elections on everyone's mind I guess no one noticed. Besides, the Federal Government weighed in and revoked Seminole funding as a result of the vote so the Seminole rethought things. Whether that happens with the Cherokee or not is an open question.

I'm not bringing this up to abuse the Cherokee. I mean it is ironic and all, but this whole surreal pas de deux has broader implications for a discussion that has been going on a long time in this country.

When you listen to lunatics like Tancredo and his Confederate Flag waving followers, you might think that the only issue about assimilation is whether you are a legal or illegal alien. I don't mean to put Lou Dobbs in the same category, but where he goes off the rails is that he makes a similar sort of mistake. Like Tancredo, Dobbs casts the assimilation question as a matter of choice. If you chose to immigrate than you should choose to assimilate...or go back to where you came from. I think most voluntary immigrants would agree with them. Certainly the second generation of these voluntary immigrants would agree. That's the generation that changes its name and pretends it doesn't speak the language of their parent's generation.

But what do you say to people who found themselves forcibly removed, displaced, or surrounded? Some guy in Washington draws a few lines on a map and voila, you're a stranger in a strange land. Never mind if your grandparent's grandparents are buried right over the hill... your status is not something you get to vote on. It's assigned to you by some White guy in Washington.

When all is said and done, I'm glad the Cherokee have been able to re-establish themselves as an independent nation. I'm glad they have chosen to adopt some of the useful practices of the surrounding culture. I just hope they shake off the contagion of discrimination that has hobbled America for so long, otherwise I think Chad and his cronies are going to be awfully red in the face.

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